Are Hong Kong's Iconic Neon Signs Becoming Extinct?
Photo courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board
Hong Kong is changing. No, I am not talking about its economics, political scene or culture. The former British colony is literally starting to look different.
For pretty much everyone who is alive today, Hong Kong has, more than anything else, always been defined by its neon. Think about it: Kowloon would not be Kowloon without its glowing signs. How many North American and European kids were first seduced into traveling to Asia by neon-lit scenes in Wong Kar Wai or John Woo movies?
A changing city-scape
Neon is an integral part of Hong Kong’s image. But soon, it won’t be. The city has new regulations that are forcing businesses and signmakers to switch from neon to more efficient, brighter LED signage. Actually, on some levels, this is a good thing. LED is cheaper to make, cheaper to light up and easier to maintain. These choices make it a good option for environmental and budgetary reasons. Neon also has green traits: the softer glow creates less light pollution and the tubing can be salvaged and reshaped again and again.
I am sure there are a lot of people, myself included, who selfishly think that the harsh LED lights are not nearly as romantic or atmospheric as neon. Neon has personality, it makes everything look cool. LED just makes everything look modern and really, really bright.
A dying art
The New York Times recently wrote about the impending death of Hong Kong’s neon scene.
A lot of the signs that have been lighting nighttime Hong Kong for the better part of the past century were shaped by hand. Many of the neon-makers still work in the same manner that they always have, heating and shaping glass tubing over open flames. This is pretty impressive when you think about all the intricate Chinese characters that are included in many of the signs.
Even Hong Kong’s neon craftsmen see the writing on the wall. The industry's “youngsters” are in their 40s, and there are no apprentices training to take their places when they retire. Most of their orders these days are for signs that will be used indoors in bars, shops, theaters or even private homes.
A gradual change
The change isn’t happening overnight. Every year, more signs are removed from Hong Kong’s buildings, usually for failure to meet new safety or size regulations. The way some of the most-ancient of these signs hang precariously over the street, it is no wonder more haven’t met that fate yet.
Hong Kong is already well on its way to defining itself with more-modern lighting. The nightly lights show that draws people to both sides of the Harbor is dominated by computerized, choreographed LED displays.
Finding niches for neon
Some of the signs that once made Hong Kong’s night seem like daytime have found their way into museum collections. A new visual arts gallery called M+ is actually interested in collecting old Hong Kong signs once they are taken down. The hope is that this will keep neon alive, not as a commercial art, but as a fine art.
As technology improves, the LED-neon ratio continues to change in the more modern lighting method’s favor. Because of its past image as a neon paradise, Hong Kong is the most noticeable example of this shift, but the same thing is happening in lots of major cities. It’s inevitable, obviously, but it’s hard not to feel a tinge of sad nostalgia for those soon-to-be bygone atmospheric neon-lit nights.
More by Josh Lew
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